In the summer of 1925, A.J.A. Symons picked up a frayed copy of Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick William Rolfe and ‘took the first step on a trail that led into very strange places’. Fascinated by the novel, which struck him as ‘one of the most extraordinary achievements in English literature’, Symons felt compelled to learn more about its author. When, browsing a friend’s collection of esoterica, Symons chanced upon typescripts of letters sent from Venice shortly before Rolfe’s solitary death – pleas for money, bitter attacks on acquaintances and confessions of lust – he found himself unable to sleep, swollen with ‘desire to know’, to read everything this man had written and untangle the contradictions of his personality. Over subsequent years, Symons would dedicate his life to the pursuit of the mysterious Rolfe, also known as Baron Corvo: fantasist, linguist, artist, failed priest, failed gondolier, and – Symons concluded – ‘strange, tormented spirit’.
Symons’s work became The Quest for Corvo (1934), an engrossing account not only of his subject’s bizarre life, but of Symons’s own long investigation: the dead-ends that frustrated him, and the goldmines he discovered. The reader follows Symons’s trails as if in real time, as a portrait gradually emerges from the scraps and fragments of evidence made available to him. We see Symons anxiously awaiting clandestine appointments with characters from Corvo’s tragic past; poring over the TLS letters pages where collectors and dealers share information on missing manuscripts; even receiving, to his horror, a letter in his subject’s own distinctive handwriting, which proved to originate from a childhood friend with a sense of humour, who had mastered calligraphy by copying Corvo’s script. To his brother, Julian Symons – an established author of crime fiction – Symons wrote that he was setting out to write a biography ‘in the form of a detective adventure’: a plotted romp which would lay bare the thrill of the intellectual chase. The book was subtitled ‘An experiment in biography’, and remains in print as a cult classic: it reveals not only the character, desires and secrets of the ostensible object of inquiry, but also – willingly or otherwise – those of the biographer themselves.
As I learned while working on a biography of my own, researching lives is a complicated, messy endeavour, fraught with practical challenges and ethical dilemmas. In her gripping memoir Parisian Lives, published just before her death early in 2020, Deirdre Bair describes in delicious detail the experience of writing about Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, both of whom were very much alive when their biographies were commissioned. Beckett – who promised neither to help nor to hinder the project, and did his best to make Bair feel ‘like a marionette whose strings he was pulling’ – seethed with envy when his friends chose to dine with his biographer rather than him, and demanded they put across his own versions of events, while surreptitiously mining them for gossip on Bair’s attitudes and progress. The biographer who takes on a living subject thrusts themselves into ongoing personal dramas: Bair was forced to confront her subjects’ contradictions and complexities in the flesh, and negotiate not only their careful attempts to hide elements of their past they hoped to keep private, but her own anxieties about whether she had any right to defy their wishes. But biographers of the long-dead are no less complicit in what Janet Malcolm has described as ‘voyeurism and busybodyism . . . obscured by an apparatus of scholarship’. They do their work in archives, assessing material as slippery and chameleon as people themselves.
In The Silent Woman, her inquiry into the control exerted by Olwyn Hughes, literary executor of the Sylvia Plath estate, over Plath’s posthumous reputation, Malcolm describes the allure of archival papers, especially letters, as ‘biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience’. Yet Malcolm’s study makes very clear that any such intimacy is always illusory, mediated invisibly through the archive itself. Archives collect the past, but they also frame and distort it: they preserve, but also quietly curate. The story a biographer can tell will always depend on the material made available to them: any portrait of another person composed from the fragments of existence that survive in the archive will necessarily be partial and highly subjective. ‘People often leave no record of the most critical or passionate moments of their lives,’ writes A.S. Byatt. ‘They leave laundry bills and manifestoes.’ We can’t hope to adequately reconstruct the friendships predominantly conducted not by letter but in person or over the telephone; diaries pose as much a stage for posturing and obscuring as for unguarded self-exposure. Often, material is deliberately destroyed, and access to surviving documents is carefully guarded; in many cases, once someone has died, their papers are sold and scattered across the world, vanishing into private hands, so that finding them or not can be a matter of pure luck.
Researching my book Square Haunting, a group biography of five women writers who had congregated, in the interwar years, in London’s Mecklenburgh Square, I spent months on the trail of an unpublished manuscript by mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers, the first story to feature her monocled detective Lord Peter Wimsey. When I arrived at the library in Wheaton College, Illinois, where most of her papers are held, and found that a promising catalogue listing produced only an empty folder, I began to suspect that true to form, Sayers had orchestrated the red herring herself. After exchanging Facebook messages with well-informed members of various fan groups, I contacted Sotheby’s, the auction house which sold a huge collection of Sayers’s papers in 2002, when a deputation of archivists was outbid time and again by private collectors. A quickfire chain of emails led me to the bar of the Athenaeum Club in London to meet a member who had been given the precious manuscript as a birthday present, and who – in a suitably glamorous denouement – allowed me to photograph it over a glass of wine.
The great pleasure of archive work lies in searching for these secrets known and unknown: filling out a call slip and waiting for the archivist to bring up your documents; opening an envelope and unfolding pieces of paper once sent privately in the post, fingerprints and ink blots still perceptible. At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, flicking through ‘Correspondence M-R’ of the papers of historian Arnold Toynbee, I felt my stomach leap when I finally recognised Eileen Power’s neat square handwriting marking the envelope ‘Personal’. As I ran my thumb over the broken seal, I wondered if Toynbee had experienced the same visceral reaction when this thin envelope was opened for the first time. In 1929, Power and Toynbee had attended an international relations conference in Kyoto, Japan, and afterwards travelled together through China. One morning, Power confided to him that the previous night she had become engaged to Reginald Johnston, former tutor to Puyi, the last Emperor of China; to her horror, Toynbee responded not with congratulations but with a flustered declaration of his own passion for her. Toynbee’s emotions on seeing Power’s handwriting – the first communication between the pair since that event – must have been deeply conflicted; Power chastised him in raw terms for the ‘sudden and violent shock, for which I was totally unprepared’. What Power cannot have known is that the archive also contains an extremely frank letter from Toynbee’s wife, Rosalind, to whom he had written at once to confess his indiscretion. ‘I don’t think she would have been a better wife for you than me,’ Rosalind wrote with impressive magnanimity, ‘though she would have been quite a good one.’
For the historian Arlene Farge, archival documents ‘appear to have the ability to reattach the past to the present’. When exploring these sources, she writes, ‘you can find yourself thinking that you are no longer working with the dead’. Over the four years I spent writing Square Haunting, I followed my subjects across the world, on the trail of documents and memories long-since dispersed. I stood inside the rooms they had worked in (thanks to a duped estate agent, somewhat bemused by my interest in period features), looked up from the outside at houses where they’d lived, and integrated their lives into my own, as more and more of my waking hours were consumed by reconstructing theirs. I knew from The Quest for Corvo that biographical narratives are always shaped by coincidence and serendipity, but I soon learned how fundamental such thrills and frustrations would become to my own project: how what I could write would ultimately rely on the whims of strangers, institutions, librarians, my subjects themselves, their descendants, and all who were appointed – or appointed themselves – responsible for managing (something very different from preserving) their legacies. Faced with an archive entirely in Russian, I would never have found the letters of Alexei Remizov to Jane Harrison and Hope Mirrlees were it not for the trainee librarian who took it upon herself – her boss being temporarily away from his desk – to set aside her administrative work and help me search pages of elaborate script for their names. While researching in Massachusetts, I stayed with a scholar who had once visited the stepdaughter of a man who had been romantically involved with the poet H.D., and been allowed to photograph some of his letters, which she was willing to show to me. She knew she had a tranche of scans saved somewhere in the internal labyrinth of her ancient computer: as the time of my bus to New York drew nearer, I watched over her shoulder, frantically calculating the value of these potential gems against the possibility of being stranded. Towards the end of my project, I was lucky enough to have a most serendipitous encounter with the son of Michael Postan, Eileen Power’s husband, who had remarried after her premature death. My research on Power – a fascinating LSE historian, who broadcast world history programmes to children on the radio, and hosted raucous parties for young socialists in her kitchen – had been hampered by the fact that her sisters had burned most of her personal papers. He allowed me to read a series of letters he had recently uncovered, written by Power to her husband in May 1940, when Postan was suddenly called away on a diplomatic mission to Moscow, days before the Dunkirk evacuation threatened to presage the imminent invasion of Britain. Writing from Cambridge, uncertain whether she would still be alive when Postan returned, Power recalled intimate memories of the early days of their relationship, and left clear instructions as to how she wanted her work to be remembered. Suddenly, there she was, pouring out her heart in a way I hadn’t seen since reading the letters she wrote to her closest university friend during the summer holidays. Being allowed to use these papers undoubtedly made my portrait far richer; nonetheless, such discoveries stand also as a bittersweet reminder of just how much is lost, how much more we will never know.
Since Square Haunting was published, I’ve often been asked which of my subjects is my favourite, or who I would have most likely to have been friends with. This sort of speculation is, of course, a dangerous game. After spending months reading someone’s diaries and letters, it’s tempting to feel that this artificial relationship allows us to know them better than anyone else – in a more rounded way than many of their closest friends, to whom they might have shown only one side of their character; even than they ever knew themselves. With the ability to take stock of a life in its entirety, we can trace patterns, ascribe motivations and impose narrative on events and decisions that must, at the time, have felt haphazard. But even the most scrupulous biographer’s narrative is only one version of a story, full of omissions and emphases which another equally diligent researcher would have addressed differently. A biography’s structure is inevitably crafted by subjective decisions which depend entirely on the author’s own interests, passions, prejudices, as well as on the material to which they have had access. Biographies are often described as ‘comprehensive’ or ‘exhaustive’, terms which imply peculiar value judgements not only about the book in question but about the art of biography itself. For Ali Smith, Heather Clark’s Red Comet is ‘surely the final, the definitive, biography of Sylvia Plath’; John Carey wrote of Hermione Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard – who meanwhile continues living – that ‘Stoppard’s life will not need writing again’, while Sigrid Nunez described Ben Moser’s Susan Sontag as ‘the last word on Susan Sontag’, adding: ‘I can’t imagine the necessity of another book about her life.’ Praising biography in these terms is a disservice to readers and writers: it urges a biographer to reach for unattainable, even undesirable levels of authority on their subject, rejects the value of multiple perspectives in favour of affording one individual ownership of someone else’s story, and flattens an art form to which uncertainty is inherent and self-awareness essential.
A story I came across in the course of research neatly illustrates the need for different biographers to bring alternative perspectives to their subjects. In the 1970s, the scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, who had written about Dorothy L. Sayers, was working at Harvard’s Houghton Library when a man approached her and dropped a brown paper packet on her desk. The packet contained eleven letters written by Sayers in 1924 to John Cournos, who had left her abruptly two years before. Heilbrun knew that Cournos had deposited some letters at Harvard with the proviso that they remain sealed until fifty years after his death: she never discovered the identity of the mysterious stranger, or how he had obtained these copies. As Heilbrun read the letters, she saw a very different image of Sayers emerge, compared to the confident woman presented in breezy letters to her parents, previously the main source for her activities and mental state at this period. These letters show a woman deeply vulnerable, yet convinced that vocation and integrity were the values that would guide her life. Newly confident after the success of her first novel, confirmed in her commitment to her work, Sayers wrote furiously back to Cournos, who had never believed in her talent, lambasting him for trying to persuade her to make compromises that would have stifled her vision, ambitions and ethics.
The papers were eventually shown to James Brabazon, whose biography of Sayers – the first to incorporate the revelation that she had given up an illegitimate child to foster carers – was published in 1981. In her review of Brabazon’s biography, Heilbrun picked up on a phrase Brabazon used when describing Sayers’s early years in London. In her twenties, Brabazon announced, Sayers was ‘a virgin and unemployed’, who eventually ‘had to fall back on the intellect’ to compensate for the fact that ‘life robbed her of most of the ordinary human experiences of satisfactory emotional relationships’. Brabazon’s narrative, Heilbrun points out, rests on the assumption that Sayers would have preferred to lead a contented domestic life than one devoted to the intellect; that the life of a successful novelist was somehow a consolation prize. The structure of his biography, Heilbrun argues, shows that Brabazon ‘believes more than do I in the power of the erotic plot, male-designed, in the life of an extraordinary woman’. In reading Sayers’s life against a script in which women must wait passively for marriage and motherhood, mapping her success or failure onto that limited scale, Brabazon was revealing less of his subject than ‘his own interpretation of what a woman’s life can be’. Rather, Heilbrun suggests, during the year where Brabazon focuses on her virginity, Sayers had recently become one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University, was beginning work on her first detective novel, and negotiating a complex relationship which challenged and deepened her ideas about freedom, compromise and vocation. Over this year, she tried out different ways of living, as she worked out how it might look and feel to lead an unconventional life, one with few obvious precedents: a life dedicated to achievement, to doing one’s own work rather than someone else’s, as women had always been encouraged to do. How, Heilbrun asks, can a biographer avoid imposing on their subjects their own preconceptions as to how a life should be lived? How can we write about lives lived deliberately outside of conventional patterns, without assuming that apparent mistakes and disappointments were cause for regret or censure? What new possibilities might be opened up for writing women’s lives, asks Heilbrun, if we don’t see defying expectations as something to condemn, but look to celebrate stories of ambition, risk, efforts to live differently and expansively?
During the writing of Square Haunting, I was acutely conscious that the book – which I had conceived as a historical project – was taking shape influenced by my personal thoughts and preoccupations. I was reading Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, a contemporary reckoning with the dilemma of whether being a parent is compatible with being an artist, while I wrote about Sayers’s decision to give up her baby to ensure she could pursue the career she had worked so hard to secure. While I considered H.D.’s ongoing efforts to write her own life story, well aware that she risked spending posterity in the margins, as a subsidiary character in the stories of famous men (Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Sigmund Freud), I thought back to Adrienne Rich’s 1972 essay ‘When We Dead Awaken’, which examines the way women come to consciousness of their subordinate position in society, and calls for a new language and a new literary tradition to help women understand themselves. ‘We need to know the writing of the past,’ she writes, ‘and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.’ Searching for a new ‘way of being in the world’, Rich looks back, as Woolf urged in A Room of One’s Own, to a shared history of women writers, in search of models which will offer her possibility rather than constrain her. In many ways, I realised that in the writing of this book I myself was looking for models, for women who were, like Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, ‘interested only in stretching myself, in living as fully as I can’. Their words and actions resound today, offering ways of thinking and tools for action that form a legacy no less significant than the details of their lives that can be recovered. As I sat in the Women’s Library at LSE, reading Eileen Power’s notes towards a new textbook of world history – humane studies of international trade, co-operation and community, predicated on the idea that every schoolchild should be educated to be ‘a future citizen of the world as well as of Britain’ – the prime minister suggested that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’. When the dead speak across the generations, it’s important to listen: today, these women’s arguments and injunctions remain as urgent as ever.
The paperback edition of Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is out now from Faber and Faber.
Photograph © dennis william gaylor